Amazon Touts Machine Learning, ‘Local Zones,’ and A.I. Tool as Cloud Competition Heats Up

In front of an audience of thousands of tech professionals, for almost three hours Tuesday Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy extolled the benefits of cloud computing.

The marathon talk was part of the online giant’s annual AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, where attendees have grown accustomed to Amazon detailing dozens of new tech features for IT professionals and developers.

But unlike previous years, the company is facing some of the most intense competition it’s ever felt. Still considered by analysts to be the biggest force in cloud computing, Amazon is hearing the footsteps and drumbeat of Microsoft and Google.

In October for instance, Microsoft won the Pentagon’s coveted Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract worth up to $10 billion. An Amazon spokesperson has since claimed that the bidding process for the cloud contract was tainted with “clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias,” and the company filed a lawsuit in late November to overturn the award.  

Here are the most noteworthy takeaways from Jassy’s talk:

Building a machine learning machine

Like its cloud rivals, Amazon is trying to build tools to help non-tech companies more easily make complicated machine-learning models, a task that typically requires a lot of A.I. expertise. Jassy pitched the company’s new SageMaker Studio product as an all-in-one machine learning model creation kit for coders without a lot of data science chops. 

Jassy also said that the company’s custom Inferentia A.I. chip, announced last year, is finally available to the wider public. Unlike a lot of custom A.I. chips used for data training, the Inferentia is used to help machine-learning models make predications on data, making it akin to Google’s A.I. TPU chip that it debuted in 2017. 

Knocking the competition

Jassy took some shots at IT rivals like Oracle and IBM by showing a silly picture of Amazon shipping boxes labeled with the names of those companies to represent the idea that customers want to “move away” from them. 

He also knocked Microsoft’s Windows product, saying “people aren’t so keen to have one owner of an operating system, when [Microsoft] can change pricing,” implying that customers hate sudden pricing changes. Of course, one of the reasons many companies are using multiple cloud services, not just Amazon, is out of the fear that using one vendor will make them vulnerable to unexpectedly changing prices. 

‘Local’ media

Jassy introduced AWS Local Zones as a way for media companies and others to operate steaming-media apps that don’t struggle with latency problems that can cause hiccups and delays with the video signals. The idea behind the new product is that Amazon can install its own Outpost cloud server hardware in some of the buildings it manages in big cities, effectively turning the facilities into mini-datacenters.

Currently, the only AWS Local Zone that’s available to the public is in Los Angeles, a media heavy hub, but Jassy said the service would eventually debut in other cities.

DJ D-Sol drops the beat

David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs and a DJ that goes by the name of D-Sol, entertained attendees with a DJ set before Jassy’s talk began. Solomon, the subject of a recent Fortune profile, later returned to the stage, acting more like a traditional banking CEO than a club DJ, extolling the virtues of cloud “innovation” while bragging about his firm’s A.I. and machine learning chops.

Taking the pulse of medical transcription

Brent Shafer, the chairman and CEO of healthcare IT giant Cerner, talked to the audience about his company’s work with Amazon on creating a “virtual scribe” for doctors that can reduce the amount of data entry work they do each day by instantly transcribing their notes. Shafer said that Cerner’s new virtual scribe product was built using the Amazon Transcribe Medical machine learning service intended to produce medical transcriptions for doctors.

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